Trafalgar – 21 October 1805

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Nicholas Pocock’s pointing of the closing stages of the action at the battle of Trafalgar. In the distance the French van escapes south-south-west and to the left the French Achille catches fire and explodes.

Above left 12.45 pm: Collingwood’s column had already engaged and Nelson broke the line in Victory at the head of his column. Above right 4.30 pm: part of the allied van escaped south-south-west after failing to rescue Bucentaure and Santissima Trinidad; the rest of the van and survivors from the rear escaped to Cadiz.

This battle must be considered as an exception to the actions hitherto engaged on account of the manner in which the enemy attacked; it was a concourse of individual engagements over a small area. VILLENEUVE’S CHIEF-OF-STAFF, COMMANDER J-BPRIGNY, 1805.

COMBATANTS

British

  • Total crews 21,456men: 18,134 seamen, 3,322 marines: 3-decker ‘first rates’: 3 x100 guns; 3-decker ‘second rates’: 4 x98 guns ; 2-decker ‘third rates’: 1 x80 guns , 16 x74 guns, 3 x64 guns; 4 frigates, 1 schooner, 1cutter
  • Commander-in-Chief Vice Admiral Horatio, Viscount Nelson; second in command Rear Admiral Sir Cuthbert Collingwood
  • 449 killed , 1,214 wounded

Franco-Spanish combined fleet (Allies)

  • French: total crews c. 15,000; 2-decker ‘third rates ‘: 4 x80 guns, 14 x74 guns; 5 frigates, 2 corvettes. Spanish: total crews 11,817; 4-decker ‘first rate’: 1 x130 guns ; 3-decker ‘first rates’: 2 x112 gun s, 1 x100 guns; 2-decker ‘third rates’: 2 x80 guns, 8 x74 guns, 1 x64 guns
  • Commander-in-Chief: French fleet and combined fleet: Vice Admiral Pierre, Comte de Villeneuve;

Spanish fleet: Admiral Don Federico Gravina

  • French : c.3,370 killed or drowned, 1,160 wounded, 5,000 taken prisoner, 2,500 taken prisoner but escaped in the storm after the battle; Spanish: 1,038 killed or drowned and 1,385 wounded, 3,000-4,000 prisoners, some of whom escaped in the storm after the battle, and all the wounded were returned by Collingwood.

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This famous naval battle was fought off the southwest corner of Spain between a British fleet of 27 ships of the line commanded by Vice Admiral Horatio , Viscount Nelson, and a combined fleet of 18 French and 15 Spanish ships of the line under the command of the French Vice Admiral Pierre, Comte de Villeneuve.

Trafalgar was a consequence of the collapse of the Emperor Napoleon ‘s impracticable dreams of invading Britain in 1805. These failed at the first serious hurdle when Villeneuve ‘s combined Toulon and Cadiz fleet was repulsed from its intended junction with the Brest fleet by a waiting British squadron – under Admiral Calder off Ferrol on 22 July 1805 – and put back to Vigo and then to Cadiz. Napoleon decided instead to march eastward against the more accessible target of the Austrian and Russian armies.

The combined fleet at Cadiz was now to be used in the Mediterranean to protect the emperor’s exposed Italian flank against British and Russian amphibious attack. Deciding that Villeneuve’s indecisiveness would prevent him forcing his way past the blockading British fleet, Napoleon sent a new commander, Admiral Rosily, to take the fleet to Italy.

News of Rosily’s impending arrival, and of the withdrawal of part of the watching British fleet for resupply at Gibraltar, encouraged Villeneuve to set aside his misgivings. He took his fleet to sea on 19-20 October, hoping to rescue his reputation by implementing the emperor’s orders himself. As the combined fleet left harbour, a chain of frigates and battleships reported its movements back to Nelson, whose fleet was hovering beyond the horizon. Anticipating that it would be bound for the Mediterranean, he moved his fleet southeast to intercept it.

Preparations for battle

Nelson, the foremost admiral of the age, had taken command only three weeks before, but he had a clear idea of how he would fight. This was communicated to his captains over dinners at which he raised morale amongst his newly formed blockading fleet. He and Napoleon were unique in their time in always seeking battles of annihilation. A result of this sort would be impossible to achieve by traditional line-ahead manoeuvres in the short daylight hours of late October. Nelson’s victorious encounters with the Spanish at Cape St Vincent in 1797, and with the French at the Nile in 1798, had revealed their poor gunnery. He decided to risk a head-on attack by two columns.

His own (12 of the line on the day) would cut the enemy centre, capture their admiral and hold back the enemy van from interfering in the decisive action, which would be achieved by focusing superior numbers (15 of the line under Collingwood) on overwhelming the enemy rear. To restrict the damage from a head-on attack against the enemy broadsides he looked to get in as quickly as possible, ordering his ships to carry full sail and extra studding sails until they reached the enemy line, instead of the normal fighting rig of topsails only (which avoided the mainsails being set alight by gun flashes). His largest first and second-rate battleships headed his columns since they were best able to absorb damage, had the weight to break up the enemy line, and carried most guns to take on the concentrated fire power until the ships behind arrived to help.

Villeneuve, who had been at the Nile, correctly foresaw that Nelson would not fight an orthodox line-against -line battle, but instead concentrate against part of his fleet. To counter this he formed a fast squadron of observation under the Spanish Admiral Gravina (Principe de Asturias) to act separately from the line of battle wherever it was needed, and instructed all his captains to join the action as soon as possible. He also urged boarding tactics to vitiate the superior British gunnery.

In the event, however, he was let down by his subordinates. Gravina tamely attached his ships to the rear of the line (where he saw that Collingwood was aiming), rather than using his freedom of action to manoeuvre against Collingwood’s flank and disrupt his attack. Admiral Dumanoir (Formidable), commanding the allied van, allowed himself to be mesmerized by Nelson’s initial feint towards the van before attacking the centre, and was consequently late in ordering his ships to turn back and support the centre, a movement further delayed by the very light wind which necessitated launching his ships’ boats to tow them around .

Action

Collingwood – in his newly refitted, first-rate Royal Sovereign – was first to break through the allied line at about midday. Nelson headed his column through the centre in Victory at 12.45 pm and the battle then continued until about 4.30 pm. The first British ships into action took the bulk of casualties as they found themselves surrounded by enemy ships. Nelson himself was killed by a French sharpshooter, as were two captains in Collingwood’s division.

However, as more British ships entered the newly opened gaps in the enemy line, so their superior gun drill and mutual fire support in a melee action proved their worth. French attempts to use boarding tactics were blasted to pieces by the British upper-deck heavy-calibre carronades (short guns). Two admirals were killed, as well as a commodore and six captains. Nine Spanish and eight French ships were captured (including Villeneuve and his flagship Bucentaure) and another French ship caught fire and exploded. Eleven limped back to Cadiz with the mortally wounded Gravina, and Dumanoir escaped northward with four of the van.

A savage storm followed the battle, lasting several days, while the British struggled to keep their own damaged ships and their captures afloat. In the end Collingwood saved all his own ships and four of his captures. During the storm, on 23 October, five of the allied survivors made a daring sortie from Cadiz and managed to rescue two captured vessels, but one of these was subsequently wrecked, as were three of the rescuers. All the remaining captures foundered or were wrecked on the adjacent coast, or destroyed by the British to avoid their recapture.

Total casualties on the British side were 449 killed and 1,214 wounded, and in the Franco-Spanish combined fleet 4,408 were killed or drowned and 2,545 wounded, many of these included among 7,000 prisoners. On 3 November Dumanoir’s four fugitives were intercepted in the Bay of Biscay by Sir Richard Strachan as they tried to reach Rochefort, and all were captured, bringing the total loss of the combined fleet to 24 out of the 33 battleships engaged .

Significance of the battle

The annihilation battle that Nelson had sought was largely achieved – more ships of the line were taken than in any previous battle of the sailing era. But the immediate effects of Trafalgar were small. It prevented the combined fleet from interfering in Mediterranean operations, but those operations – the Russo-British invasion of Naples – were themselves invalidated by French victories at Ulm and Austerlitz. Trafalgar did not stop Napoleon’s path into Europe, but it greatly set back any attempt to resume his westward ambitions. It gave the British breathing space to rebuild their deteriorating fleet and encouragement to continue the fight despite the defeat of their allies.

Napoleon sought to hide the British victory from the French people (his coldness to Villeneuve drove the latter to suicide when he returned on parole in 1806) and he was to rebuild his fleets, but he never rebuilt the confidence among their commanders and crews to take on the British navy successfully. Spain was the greatest loser. She never replaced her fleet, and the loss of her sea power contributed to the loss of her vulnerable American empire. Yet even Spain drew consolation from the valiant and prolonged resistance of their scratch, untrained crews to the murderous British onslaught. The stigma of subservience to the French was cast off and later generations saw this as the heroic, bloody birth of a new Spain – the start of the restoration of national honour that would lead to the Peninsular War and the ultimate rejection of French rule.

Trafalgar was the last great naval battle of the age of sail, and the benchmark by which all future naval battles were to be compared. The dead victor and his victory became immortalized in central London by Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square. Nelson left the British nation with a naval triumph that was a cornerstone to the prestige of the British navy and symbol of British naval mastery for another century, up to the battle of Jutland.

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